Writing historical stories without falling into cliché takes a bucketload of skill. Tom Lowe demonstrates that dexterity in his latest thriller, DRAGONFLY.
The ninth book in the Sean O’Brien series finds the former Miami homicide cop matching wits with an assassin who’s killing off retired CIA agents. When the killer sets his sights on one of Sean’s closest friends, Sean lands himself squarely in the middle of a deadly plot that stretches across borders—and into the past.
The Big Thrill caught up with Lowe to talk about the challenges of weaving together fact and fiction, the demands of juggling three ongoing series, and the benefits of giving his longest-running character an unconventional sidekick.
Interweaving real events and characters with a fictional story risks ending up with a finished product that’s unconvincing. (I call it the “Oh dear, I see the Titanic’s sunk” effect.) How do you guard against that?
By its very nature, historical fiction is an oxymoron. History, especially well-known history, is set in stone. That doesn’t mean the ripples from it can’t be fictionalized in the novel form. Historical events can provide exceptional leverage for the writer to use as background to base a story. I believe authors have a creative license to whisper, “What if?” and then follow the wellspring of their imagination as it flows from an event in history that will give the story added credence. That, of course, can be a double-edge sword. The creative liberty can’t cross the line and paint history with brushstrokes that will alter it. But the author can work along the seams and create characters and events that possibly could have had a connection to the background of that specific point in history. For example, my novel The Jefferson Prophecy deals with Thomas Jefferson before he was president and then from when he authorized the nation to go to war against the Barbary pirates. I knew I couldn’t change any event involving Jefferson in terms of what he did or didn’t do, as it was documented in history. However, I knew that Jefferson was a gifted cryptographer, a man who’d invented the cipher-wheel used for decades after his death to send and receive covert messages. That’s where I whispered, “What if?” and let the story begin.
You produced documentaries for PBS. Which was the most interesting?
That’s like asking me to name my favorite child. I love ’em all. And each documentary is completely different in almost every respect. One told the story of the sponge divers of Tarpon Springs. Walking on the bottom of the ocean, harvesting sponges, is a dangerous way to earn a living. One told the story of the St. Johns River—one of the few major rivers in the world that flows north. The first settlers from Europe made homes on the St. Johns 50 years before the settlements of Jamestown or Plymouth. However, the documentary that still garners the most views in re-runs on PBS is the one told about a Florida-based writer—Zora Neale Hurston. It was the most difficult to produce because we only had ten known photos of Zora and had to fill one hour of program time. We created a lot of re-enactments to tell the story, with five actors cast to play the part of Zora, from a 12-year-old girl up through the end of her life, near the age of 70.
You write three different series. Do you have a favorite?
I don’t have a favorite. However, I’ve been writing the Sean O’Brien series longer, finishing the 10th book in a few weeks. So, in terms of the character who’s been in my head the most, it’s definitely O’Brien. I’ve completed the second book in the Elizabeth Monroe series, The Confession, and it’ll be published in the spring. There are two novels in the Paul Marcus series, Destiny and The Jefferson Prophecy. The third is coming November 2019.
Do you ever get confused between the different series when writing them?
Thus far, I haven’t, but at my age that could change at any minute. I think the reason I don’t get confused is because I’m so focused on telling the story in front of me, I don’t allow the peripheral characters from the other series to emerge. The way I guard against that is to adhere to my minimum daily page count and plough through the potential distractions. Now, once I’m done writing for the day, I often think about the other series and jot down possible story ideas when they come to me—usually after a glass of cabernet.
Sean has a great “sidekick” in his dog, Maxine. What’s the inspiration behind her? And how have you managed to make her so believable?
After the death of Sean O’Brien’s wife, I wanted to write the first novel (A False Dawn) in first-person to give the reader a greater insight into his heart. I wanted them to know more about what he’d been through during the period leading up to the story in that book. One of the best ways was to give him someone to talk to—someone who was a good listener. Rather than use a best friend, I chose to create the character of Maxine, a small canine companion hanging tight with O’Brien. Since Max was a gift from O’Brien’s wife, Sherri, before her death, Max is the child they never had. She’s the link to the past and constant reminder of the present. I try to make her believable because I think crime fiction often needs a slight buffer to give the reader a breather as the tension mounts during the story. I think most dachshunds are comical by their very nature. Max is no exception.
I’m a great believer that food can be important in “showing not telling,” because it can help create a setting and give us clues about the characters. Would you agree?
Yes, I think sharing food with someone, especially food that one of the characters has taken the time to prepare, is an excellent way to move a story in the right direction and to bridge from one scene to the next. It can be having a drink at a bar or eating one of the meals Nick Cronus makes on his boat. The idea is that characters slow down for a moment to reflect and exchange information in a setting that’s conducive to doing that. Of course, a bullet through the center of the table can shorten the meal and hasten the story.
When I read DRAGONFLY, the lines, “She doesn’t look like a former FBI agent.” “What do former FBI agents look like?” made me smile. If you were a spymaster, what sort of agents would you recruit? Could you spot a foreign spy?
Former FBI agents can come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and personalities. In fiction, it’s subjective. Usually, though, most former FBI agents have spent many years in the trenches and retired out at the end of 20 to 30 years in the job. The wear and tear, after all those years, often shows. However, when an agent is forced out at a much earlier age and tenure, often the treadwear isn’t as obvious on the outside. If I were a recruiter for the CIA or FBI, I believe I’d look for people who could think quickly and use a gun as a last resort. I probably couldn’t spot any spy, foreign or domestic, and the boundaries are certainly blurred today.
Tom is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and filmmaker. As he writes his books, Tom draws from his travels around the world and his background as a print and broadcast journalist. Tom is a sailor and SCUBA diver. He writes three separate thriller series featuring: (1) Sean O’Brien, (2) Elizabeth Monroe, and (3) Paul Marcus.
To learn more about Tom and his work, please visit his website.